It was February 2015. Barack Obama had just returned to the US after attending the Republic Day parade, the first US head of state to do so. Invited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his India visit had gotten off like a dream. The political establishment fawned on him and an euphoric media called it 'epochal'. It was all very gooey, like warm chocolate fuzz.
Interestingly, during the annual National Prayer Breakfast meeting which took place almost as soon as he returned home, the US President chose to deliver a lecture on tolerance and asked India to learn lessons anew from Mahatma Gandhi.
"Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation," Obama had said while referring to the controversies that had been dogging the Modi administration.
That eloquent homily to tolerance was never more relevant than now — one and a half years after it was delivered by the world's most powerful man — as his own country goes up in flames, cleaved neatly into two over racial fault lines. Three days of violence that saw controversial shootings of two African-Americans and US law enforcement officers suffering their biggest casualty since 9/11, Americans need to re-learn what Martin Luther King said about the Mahatma and the potency of his philosophy in social reform.
When the time came to confront the bitter reality however, consummate orator Obama (not for the first time) was left stumbling for words as he addressed Americans from Warsaw, Poland, where the POTUS is on a NATO visit. Gone was the swagger, the staccato baritone missing its familiar fluency.
Americans were "horrified", said Obama on Friday, for what he called "a vicious, calculated and despicable attack on law enforcement" in Dallas. "There is no possible justification for these kinds of attacks... Anyone involved in these senseless murders will be held fully accountable. Justice will be done."
This is a testing time for Obama, largely a lame-duck president when it comes to working on any legislative proposal that this White House sends the Republican Congress to address structural racism in American society.
"I spoke about are need to be concerned as all Americans about racial disparities in our criminal justice system. I also said yesterday that our police have an extraordinarily difficult job and the vast majority of them do their job in outstanding fashion," said Obama, sounding more like a trapeze artist than a president in control.
His predicament is understandable as he must balance the anger of black Americans against police brutality, hierarchical racism and the rage of white Americans against what they perceive as criminal forces threatening their peace and security — perceptions that lead to reactions like this tweet: "3 Dallas Cops killed, 7 wounded. This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you."
This tweet, by former congressman Joe Walsh, was later deleted but it exposes America's underbelly of institutionalised racism.
The fact that a former US Army veteran shot five and injured seven other police officers must come as the most brutal expose of anger that burns America. The shooter, 25-year-old Micah Johnson, an army reservist who served in Afghanistan, told police who surrounded him that he wanted to kill white officers.
Johnson was killed when a police robot detonated a bomb near him following a standoff that lasted several hours, Dallas police chief David Brown said on Friday. "The suspect said he was upset with white people and wanted to kill white people, especially white officers."
There's a dialogue in the 1992 movie A Few Good Men.
Lt. Weinberg: Why do you like them (soldiers) so much?
Lt. Com. Galloway: Because they stand on a wall and say, “Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch.”
When an Army veteran turns against own country, not because he is deranged or has a criminal record but because he wants to shoot white police officers, it must point to the edge America has reached for constantly ignoring the institutional racism that boils just beneath the surface.
On Thursday, after the shootings by white police officers of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, Obama had made a broad diagnosis of American racial imbalance.
"When incidents like this occur, there's a big chunk of our citizenry that feels as if, because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same, and that hurts, and that should trouble all of us... This is not just a black issue, not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue that we all should care about."
It is also the exact same words that he spoke in 2014 while reacting to grand jury’s decision not to indict a New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after being placed in a chokehold. His dying words started the I can't breathe movement.
“When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that’s a problem,” he added. “It’s incumbent on all of us as Americans ...that we recognise that this is an American problem and not just a black problem. It is an American problem when anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law.”
It means the problem has exacerbated under his watch.
It signifies Obama's biggest failure as the US President and as the world's most powerful man. He will continue to be remembered as the man who failed to reform America's criminal justice system and came a cropper in his fight for racial justice.
His likely successors do not inspire confidence either. Hillary Clinton lacks any extensive record of dealing with institutional racism and may just end up taking a more conservative stance due to electoral compulsions. Her opponent Donald Trump, if anything, will try to exploit the tragic events to his advantage by pandering to racial sentiments.
And the US will remain true to what the 1968 Kerner Report on racism had concluded: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
First Published On : Jul 9, 2016 14:11 IST